EAST LANSING, Michigan — No. 8 Northwestern (5-1) was quickly awoken from its dream-like season Saturday night when unranked Michigan State (2-3) stunned the Wildcats in a 29-20 upset. The loss brought an abrupt end to NU’s aspirations of reaching the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history and delayed its clinching of the Big Ten West by at least another week.
While the upset was a crushing blow to a Wildcat squad that had finally begun earning the national attention and respect it deserves, it puts the season back in perspective as NU still has the chance to achieve greatness in the final few weeks despite the bump in the road.
Coming off a 3-9 season in 2019 and the worst record in the Pat Fitzgerald era, few anticipated the Wildcats would emerge as not only a top team in the conference but as a national competitor. For a team that won just one conference game a year ago, having the chance to compete for the Big Ten title and earn a berth in a top bowl proves the impressive rebound of the program.
For anyone who’s ever watched Northwestern before, it was almost certain this perfect, storybook season would face some plot twist sooner rather than later, which came in the form of Saturday’s loss. But the real test was not this past weekend, rather how the team responds moving forward.
Northwestern’s dreams of reaching the Playoff may be over, but many of its other hopes remain alive. Even if Wildcats had been an undefeated Big Ten Champion, it wasn’t guaranteed they would have made the playoff if their opponent was Indiana as a result of Ohio State’s COVID situation/disqualification. In that instance, NU would have likely gone to a non-Playoff New Year’s Six bowl. That’s still on the table if the ‘Cats win out.
More immediately, if Northwestern can win one of its final two games or its matchup with Minnesota this weekend is canceled, the team will punch its ticket to Indy for the second time in three years — an impressive accomplishment for an oft-overlooked program like NU.
Should NU get to Indy, another win gets it to a New Year’s Six bowl. With the COVID issues at Ohio State potentially rendering the Buckeyes ineligible for the Championship, a matchup against Indiana could provide a more realistic route to NU’s first conference title in 20 years.
If a Big Ten title isn’t in the cards for NU this year, it is still set to make it back to a respectable bowl game once again after missing out on the postseason completely last year. Fitz and players acknowledged that they still control their own destiny in these final few weeks.
“We’re gonna get back to work on Monday, watch the tape and get through this and get over this and get back to work,” Paddy Fisher said postgame. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re still in the driver’s seat, and we’re still in control of that.”
The loss does not make Northwestern a bad team but rather a good team who played a bad game. As displayed Saturday, NU isn’t a great team. But its abundance of remaining opportunities in the postseason shows the benefits of starting 5-0 against an impressive schedule.
However, “an off day” does not completely excuse the Wildcats’ poor play. The team that took the field at Spartan Stadium didn’t look like a Big Ten challenger.
Northwestern struggled to create sustained momentum on offense. The offensive line had its worst day yet this season, leading to four sacks of quarterback Peyton Ramsey and a run game that averaged just 1.7 yards per carry.
The defense came out uncharacteristically flat and could not contain the quarterback draw or outside run, allowing 65 yards on ground on 10 attempts from MSU signal caller Rocky Lombardi, who came into the game with negative rushing yards. Most damaging, the Wildcats turned the ball over four times, including three times in the fourth quarter. Northwestern came into the game with a + 8 turnover margin, while the Spartans had a -9 margin before the matchup.
Before the loss at Michigan State, NU showed the in-game ability to overcome adversity. Now, the Wildcats have got to find a way to bounce back from a poor performance.
Maybe the Wildcats got caught up in the moment, with their top-10 ranking and pristine record. But the loss should remind them they can’t take anything for granted. It’s anyone’s guess if NU plays Saturday against Minnesota (the data would indicate “no”), and the extra rest and time to work out its own kinks could come at just the right time.
“It’s just a bump in the road in our season,” Blake Gallagher said. “We’re gonna come back, we’re gonna fix what we need to fix on Monday and keep on going, take everything up a level. We’re gonna scratch, claw and fight to win these next two Big Ten West games and to put us in the Big Ten Championship.”